Where Flakes Gather

Where flakes gather . . .

Trees don necklaces.

Hemlocks act like umbrellas.

Branches create geometric shapes.

Hieroglyphics are written upon crustose bases.

Red squirrel toes are enhanced.

Leaves transform into stained glass.

Catkins release fleur de lis scales and tiny seeds one by one.

A young woman smears on cranberry red lipstick.

A gnome watches from his hiding place.

And a snowman steps forth to ask for a dance.

All of this can only happen where snowflakes gather.

Rocking the First Mondate

Christmas gifts don’t always have to cost and such was one that my guy cashed in on today. You see, I gave him a card and wrote a message within that read something like this: “Let’s travel to Tin Mountain Conservation Center’s Rockwell Sanctuary in Albany, New Hampshire, one Monday this winter. Your task will be to identify three reasons why I chose this place for us to journey. If you figure out all three, I’ll buy you a beer.”

And so we went. And I wondered how quickly he would figure it out.

At the kiosk, we examined the map and decided we’d start off on the Maple Leaf Loop to the left and stay to the left, thus covering all of the outer trails. That meant we wouldn’t see everything, but in three or four hours we would see enough. Maybe.

From the get-go, he tried to figure out what three things I had in mind. Was it the signage on the trees for he appreciated that they boasted their names?

I liked that as well, but, no, the tree signs weren’t part of the deal.

What about the trail being well marked, he wondered. Yes, that was a good thing and we do sometimes have a tendency to get “fake” lost, but donning snowshoes meant we could always backtrack and find our way out. So that wasn’t it.

Could it be the decorated Christmas tree? Well, that certainly is what introduced me to the trail system a month ago for the tree was decorated as part of the ME/NH Christmas Tree Quest I’d coordinated, but that wasn’t why I wanted to travel these trails with him.

Maybe it was Chase Pond? No again. I did, however, love its layers and really wanted to walk onto it to explore some more, but I’m not ready to trust ice recently formed and then coated with an insulating layer of a foot of snow. Soon, but not yet.

In the meantime, however, the edge of the pond presented the woody structures of Leatherleaf’s former flowers and I rejoiced. He marched on, totally oblivious, but that was okay. I knew these would capture my heart, not his, and the goal was for him to figure out the three things that would appeal to both of us.

“Could it be the beaver works?” he asked as we circled the Beaver Loop.

No, but the high ridge of an old beaver dam in the mid portion of this photo made me wish we’d seen more recent works. It appeared the beavers had done their work and moved on a few years ago.

Was it the canoe half hidden in the snow? That surely was fun to stumble upon and reminded us both of canoes at LEA’s Holt Pond in Bridgton. This looked like another case of bring your own PFD and paddles. You might throw in some duck tape, just in case. But, no, it wasn’t the canoe.

We followed Stoney’s Spur down to the water’s edge and again a question: Perhaps it was that we could be the first to make tracks in the snow? Well, sorta the first, for a fox and mink had been there before us. I reminded him that when I wrote the message on the card I had no idea exactly when we would visit the sanctuary or what the trail conditions would be so again, that wasn’t one of the thoughts on my mind.

The spur did lead us to a boardwalk and we broke trail on it before heading back around to the Laurel Loop.

A sudden stop by me and he knew that this wasn’t part of the equation for he had no idea what the structure was that drew my attention. We find these occasionally and they always make me happy. This was the capsule of a Lady’s Slipper and while I suspected that there are more such plants in these woods, we’ll have to return in the spring to verify that assumption.

The Laurel Trail lead us across Bald Hill Road and it was there that the great signage we’d enjoyed came to an abrupt end. And so we moved about searching left and right to figure out where to go next.

No blaze led diagonally behind us, but down through the trees my guy spied some yellow paint and so he checked it out before beckoning me to join him.

It was that way for much of the trail and though we enjoyed the lay of the land, we had a difficult time determining where to go next.

The glacial boulders, however, were a sight to see.

And upon one I discovered an act of gravity I didn’t understand: icicles extending outward and growing parallel to the ground rather than perpendicular to it.

Was this some sort of magnetic hill? My guy never saw these so he couldn’t add his two cents, which I would have gladly welcomed. Sometimes he sees things that make sense of what I spy.

The thing about the trail, however, was that neither of us could spy the blazes most of the time, unless we turned around and looked back. We were supposed to be exploring a loop and crossing back over the road, but suddenly found ourselves traveling back toward whence we’d come. Even with GPS, which didn’t pick up the actual trail, we could see our movement but couldn’t determine where we were supposed to be since the map wasn’t geo-referenced.

That was okay because our wander found us traveling through a Mountain Laurel field we would have otherwise missed.

My guy was rather certain the plant was not for his focus and so he moved on while I paused for the old Kodak moment.

Finally crossing back over the road by backtracking our steps for a bit, he wondered if the Owl Prowl Trail was one of the three reasons I’d chosen this place. No, though we both love owl encounters.

Crossing a bridge, he didn’t realize that he was suddenly getting hotter.

The bridge marked the outlet of Chase Pond and huge boulders formed its old damming point.

Our next left hand turn took us on to the Quarry Trail.

As we traversed it, a lightbulb went off and he asked, “The quarry?” YES! Quarries fascinate both of us and I knew he’d enjoy finding and exploring this one. He was feeling rather successful and grateful that he wouldn’t be the victim of a shut out.

At the next intersection he had his second answer: Bear Trees. Bingo. But, would we be able to actually see any?

Indeed we would. We both love the discovery of scratches left behind by the big mammals.

And so, as we climbed about through the quarry, we continued to look for beech trees with marks showing the way of the climber.

The rocks left behind offered their own interesting forms.

And the trees, lots of evidence.

There was more on the trees as well, and not all of it worth celebrating: do you see the tiny white spots mingled occasionally among the red bloom? Those white dots are the minute beech scale insects. The holes the tiny insect makes in the bark create a perfect entry point for nectria pathogen to make its way into the tree. The pathogen, a type of fungus, kills some areas of the tree at the point of entry. In reaction, the tree develops a canker as a defensive attempt to ward off the invader, but by doing so the canker blocks the vascular tissue of the infected beech by stopping nutrient flow in that one area.

And those red spots, as pretty as they appear, are actually tarry spots which ooze out of the cracks in the bark caused by the canker. Essentially, it appeared the tree was bleeding.

We preferred to focus on the scratches, some indicating a more recent visit than others, based on the width of the marks.

We kept finding them and wondered how many more there must be within the sanctuary and beyond.

It was no wonder for many of the trees are mature and, as evidenced by the husks left scattered on the snow, they’ve been producing fruits, aka beech nuts, for a long time.

After almost four miles in three hours, my guy and I finished up our trip and he was thrilled to have figured out that I chose this place for the quarry and the bear trees. But the third reason alluded him.

That’s okay. It just means we’ll have to return again so he can figure it out. Of course, that also meant no stop for a beer on the way home.

Perhaps the next time. In the meantime, we’re both still thrilled with the finds we did make as we rocked this first Mondate of the new year.

First Day 2020

We never know how many to expect for any event, but the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s First Day hikes typically attract a maximum of nine. Today, however, we were wowed as eighteen gathered.

Before leaving parking lot #2 on Slab City Road to reach the trailhead for our loop up and down Whiting Hill at the Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve, we all donned snowshoes and marveled at the mix of styles and colors.

Why snowshoes? Because Mother Nature dumped a foot of snow over the past two days and finally it felt like winter.

In single file, we marched along, but paused periodically, including to practice shouting. The phrase that bore repeating: Happy New Year.

Occasionally mammal prints made us stop in our tracks and for one we noted signs of urine. Hmmm, who exactly was the four-footed explorer? A red fox. And how could we be so certain? Because its pee smelled rather acrid and skunky. We initiated a few of our trekkers for they got down on all fours to take a whiff.

Other things also drew our attention along the way, including Mother Nature’s Snowball Tournament.

At last we reached the summit of Whiting, where the view encompassed Kezar Lake, but not so much the mountains for it was snowing.

While there, we shared hot cocoa and tea, pumpkin bread and scones, and lots of conversation. And again, we shouted, “Happy New Year.”

The temperature was just right and the snow the right consistency, that soon a few of us got creative.

Snow sculptures and a snowman became the focus of our intentions.

This snowman was extra classy for he chose to sport a mustache.

At first, he wanted to look into the woods, but eventually he decided to change his orientation and take in the vista of the lake and beyond.

Because we were in a festive mood, or maybe just because, a juggling act began to take shape.

In the form of snowballs.

Perhaps next year we’ll add a talent show to the day’s offerings.

In the midst of all the fun, conversations continued and old acquaintances were renewed while new friendships formed. What we love about any of our hikes is that by the end, whether you come as a frequent traveler or a newbie, you leave feeling like part of the crowd.

A couple have traveled this particular hike with us since its inception: Kitty and Dale Nelson. Kitty has been with us for three of the four years that we’ve offered a First Day hike and Dale hasn’t missed one yet.

Finally, we decided to call our time at the summit to a close. But first we needed to hear from those gathered. Mr. GLLT began by shouting: “Happy!”

To which the Mrs. added, “New!”

And the rest of us completed the phrase, “Year!” Additionally we shouted out the names of the towns we serve: “Stow, Stoneham, Sweden, Lovell, and even Chatham.”

Best wishes from all of us for a Happy New Year!

Something to Pine Over

I set off on a mission this afternoon: to spy another Tetragnatha viridis, the green long-jawed orb weaver. I last spied one on December 17th, and was sure the task would be a piece of cake today.

On the plot of land that I roamed, which had been owned by a paper company until about thirty years ago, stood towering pines, but also some that were about 20 years old and others mere saplings. I’d love to say each one captured my attention, and really, they all did, but there are still a million more to examine.

In the process, I began to notice that it wasn’t just the spider that would give me reason to wonder. First there was the ichneumon wasp cocoon. In size it was the same as another that I’ll share later in this post, but the metallic color and spotted pattern made it stand out. Presumably the larva that created it is a parasitoid of some caterpillars that feed on conifers.

Mind you, I was in the woods and there were patches of snow and certainly other patterns to pay attention to so I let my mind wander in the moment. And rejoiced with this find: an opossum track.

An opposable inner toe on each hind foot looks like a human thumb. In a shuffling motion as it waddles along, an opossum places its back feet just behind the front feet.

I followed this guy’s track for a bit until it disappeared into leaf cover and I suspected it might be up a tree.

And so my spider expedition continued. My next find: a tiny clump of bird feathers. But no spider in sight.

Again, I digressed, however, for on an old snag, I found lungwort growing over a burl in a formation I’ve not seen before. I’m used to finding it on the trunk of a tree, but wrapped around the rounded growth was a new presentation.

Back to the task at hand, and I suspected this was a molt of what may have been a tiger moth caterpillar. No spider yet, but I was getting more and more excited with each find.

Practically tripping over a downed tree I came upon another sight new to me. Here’s how I’m reading this story: the green capped mushrooms, violet-tooth polypore, had begun life when the tree was standing. Once it toppled, new fungi grew perpendicular to their parents so that their spores might drop downward. While I’ve seen this with other mushrooms, where new growth emerges from old, I’ve never encountered it with this species before.

Certainly that called for the reward of a spider. A dried up caterpillar molt would have to suffice in the meantime.

And then, in another patch of snow, another waddler had shuffled through. Remember the opossum pattern of the hind foot overlapping the front? Well, a raccoon’s pattern is offered in a series of alternating diagonals. One front foot and hind on the first angle, the other front and hind the opposite. And so it continues.

What made me chuckle about the raccoon was that it chose to walk on a downed tree rather than the more stable ground. Why not?

Refocusing my attention, upon another pine was a pupating ladybug beetle. Its structure strikes me as unique until I realize all insects are idiosyncratic in any stage of life. Still no spider.

Traveling through the woods was a bit difficult at times as there was no path and there were either clumps of trees growing in each others space or downed and rotting trunks. It was upon the later that I spied a bit of color from a thin-maze flat polypore, Daedaleopsis confragosa.

Its underside gave the name meaning. Can you follow the maze?

At last I turned my attention solely to the pines for the hour was getting late and the sun sinking lower and I still had to find my way out and walk home. It was then that I met an old friend in a new form. Remember the ichneumon wasp cocoon at the start of this story? Well, the pine sawfly cocoon is similar in size and shape. This one I refer to as an old friend for I encounter these on any type of tree or shrub all the time, but given that there was no opening, I knew that within the sawfly was pupating. Still no spider.

Then I found examples of those that had been sawed open. Given that the cut is always uniform, a few friends and I have taken to calling it the circular-saw fly. The fly would have emerged in the spring. Still no spider.

Finally, I found another sight new to me: double sawfly cocoons. Surely a two-seater.

I never did find the spiders I sought. But there was certainly plenty to pine over as I tramped the woods. And all of it was worth a wonder.

Stars in the Circle

I never had the good fortune to meet John A. Segur, but I’ve given him thanks repeatedly over the years. You see, Mr. Segur left a bequest to the Greater Lovell Land Trust to preserve habitat so that native wildlife might thrive.

It was my choice today to check on how that was playing out as I circumnavigated the John A. Segur Wildlife Refuge from Farrington Pond Road. Since the parking lot isn’t plowed for the winter, I pulled off at the cul-de-sac at the end of the road, which actually was a better spot because I didn’t want to be enticed to follow the trails.

A wise decision it was, for as I tramped along the property line on a northeasterly route to start, a grin immediately emerged. It was the downhill slide that made me instantly happy for I knew that rather recently an otter had also visited the refuge. As it should.

The bottom of the slide ended at the shore of Farrington Pond, a view those of us who visit the refuge rarely see for there is no path to it. But I rather like it that way for bushwhacking allows for new discoveries that aren’t as sterile as a maintained trail. And I suspected Mr. Segur would have felt the same. Plus, his vision was all about a wildlife corridor.

He also would have smiled when he realized that the beavers by Farrington had been active at some point in the fall. Unfortunately, (or as I’m sure some neighbors feel: fortunately) I didn’t see any other “fresh” beaver works, though I didn’t walk all the way around the pond, so I’m not sure of their status in this locale.

But, they had visited in the past including at least ten years ago, based on the growth rings on display around the wound. It’s my understanding that Eastern Hemlock is not a favorite species of beavers and they will often girdle a tree by eating the bark and cambium layer all the way around the trunk, perhaps in hopes it will die. I’ve heard a few theories on this including that beavers do such so that their preferred species will have a chance to grow where the hemlock once provided so much shade that no other trees could set root. But here’s another to throw onto the table: what if the beaver starts to dine and then realizes the flavor is not to his liking? And so he moves on to another tree. Hey, it’s just a theory.

Another thing about beavers is that sometimes they chop down trees that don’t exactly fall as planned. In this case, the entire upper portion dangles from another in the form of a widow maker–as in, don’t stand, or in this case sit, below it.

While studying the tree and thinking about the beaver, I looked down to the pond and saw more mammal sign. Can you spot the otter slide?

Eventually my bushwhack led me toward a stream crossing where the ice wasn’t exactly solid. But the bubbles that had formed within it were like little round spirals that reminded me of the inside of abalone shells. Or perhaps snails.

Suddenly, leaf cracklings filled the air that had been silent except for the sound of wind whooshing at a higher elevation. It took my eyes a few moments to discover the source of the noise, and then I realized I was near a flock of robins. My movement disturbed them, but they didn’t fly far and so we each spent a few moments contemplating our next moves.

As I stood there, I noticed a small tuft of feathers stuck to a hemlock branch, which reminded me that I need to stand still more often for it’s in those moments that things make themselves visible.

Finally I carried on, pausing again, however, when an old, old Yellow Birch showed off the stilts upon which it grew. From their height, I could just imagine the long rotted trunk that once served as its nurse tree, allowing its seed to germinate and set down roots.

Nearby was another ancient, this one a hemlock that preferred to begin life in the same manner as the Yellow Birch. I was sure it had stories to tell and know I’ll return one day soon to spend some time enwrapped by those roots as I listen.

The trees led the way to the wetland and I really, really wanted to explore it, but because I was alone (well, not exactly alone for Mr. Segur was with me kinda sorta, not really) I thought that that too should wait for another day.

If you peer closely at the snow-covered ice beginning from the lower right hand corner and moving toward the shrubs, you may spy the track of another mammal. Do you recognize the pattern? Once you learn patterns, you don’t always have to see the prints up close to know the creators.

Finally, I decided to turn away from Farrington Pond for there was another wetland on the property that I wanted to visit. But first, I found an old beaver dam. Given the lower level of water behind it, I knew that it was not in use, but it looked like a mighty sturdy structure.

Across the landscape I made my way, noting tracks of a million wild animals. Well, maybe not a million, but certainly many including coyote, fox, deer, raccoon, squirrel, vole, mouse, hare, weasel, and fisher. Some were fresh, while others a bit diluted from fluctuating temperatures. This was a place where the mammals wander freely as Mr. Segur intended.

In so doing, I also spied some puff balls that reminded me of applehead dolls with their weathered faces.

There were others who also offered a different take on their natural form–one might call this the star steeple for aster seeds had landed upon the woody structure of steeplebush capsules.

And then in a field I made a “new to the property” discovery: Tamarack trees. I love the nubs that once supported their leaves (aka needles) and the upright cones. Cones remain on the trees for about two years. I wondered about them being upright, but I suppose that as the scales open to release the winged seeds, they catch the breeze and rather than merely rain down below their parent, they are uplifted to a new location.

Continuing my bushwhack, I also continued to keep a keen eye on the world.

But there were a couple of locations I wanted to check on before my time with Mr. Segur ended. At last I reached Sucker Brook and again I chose not to venture onto the ice. One of these days.

From there, it was on to another place more secret than the last that I had my sights set upon. First, however, I stopped to look at the marcescent beech leaves, some like this one that were mere skeletons of themselves so thoroughly had they been munched. It was almost like all that was left was the backbone and rib cage.

Seeing this reminded me of a spring day on this property about four years ago: A Perfect Beech Day. On that day I’d been wowed by the unfurling beech leaves and noticed how hairy they were. In my book, the hairs are meant to keep insects at bay, and yet beech leaves are attacked by many, many little bugs. On that day I also made a bunch of other cool discoveries. You really should click the link above and read about it.

Speaking of little bugs, I also found a pupating ladybug beetle, its form so unique. If I hadn’t known, I never would have guessed it was a ladybug.

At last I reached that spot that I think of as the secret garden. There isn’t an official trail to it, but over the years many have had the opportunity to discover it on their own and been wowed. That’s how I think Mr. Segur would have liked it. We don’t need trails bisecting every inch of a property. We just need more curious people.

This is a spot where three beaver lodges are located as one gazes north.

In the distance to the south there are two more, but you’ll have to visit the secret spot in order to see them.

While you are there, don’t forget to honor the Rhodora, which is slowly preparing to wow all of us in the spring.

And if you choose to bushwhack out, eventually you might stumble upon the inflated capsule of Indian Tobacco. (Hint: it’s near the edge of an opening)

A little more than three hours and over three miles after beginning, my time wandering the property with Mr. Segur had drawn to a close.

I gave thanks to him for showing me all the stars within and surrounding the circle.

Secret Giver of Gifts

Though I first posted this in 2016, I keep returning to it. Thought you might want to as well. Peace and joy be with you.

Snow quietly drifted earthward as baking scents wafted through the house and, Christmas lights sparkled from the living room. The spirit of the season has settled upon me at last. And today I was reminded of a time when our youngest asked, “Mom, are you Santa?”

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He’d held onto the belief for far longer than any of his classmates. And for that reason, I too, couldn’t let go. And so that day as we drove along I reminded him that though the shopping mall Santas were not real, we’d had several encounters that made believers out of all of us.

The first occurred over thirty years ago when I taught English in Franklin, New Hampshire. Across the hall from my classroom was a special education class. And fourteen-year-old Mikey, a student in that class, LOVED Santa.

Each year the bread deliveryman dressed in the famous red costume when he made his final delivery before Christmas break. To Mikey’s delight, he always stopped by his classroom. That particular year, a raging snowstorm developed. The bread man called the cafeteria to say that he would not be able to make the delivery. School was going to be dismissed after lunch, but we were all disappointed for Mikey’s sake.

And then  . . . as the lunch period drew to a close, Santa walked through the door and directly toward Mikey, who hooted with joy as he embraced the jolly old elf. As swiftly as he entered, Santa left. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

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And about nineteen years ago, as the boys sat at the kitchen counter eating breakfast on Christmas Eve morning, we spotted a man walking on the power lines across the field from our house. We all wondered who it was, but quickly dismissed the thought as he disappeared from our view, until . . . a few minutes later he reappeared. The second time, he stopped and looked in our direction. I grabbed the binoculars we kept on the counter for wildlife viewings. The man was short and plump. He wore a bright red jacket, had white hair and a short, white beard. The boys each took a turn with the binoculars. The man stood and stared in our direction for a couple of minutes, and then he continued walking in the direction from which he’d originally come. We never saw him again. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

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Another incident occurred about seventeen years ago, when on Christmas Eve, our phone rang. The unrecognizable elderly male voice asked for our oldest son. When I inquired who was calling, he replied, “Santa.” He spoke briefly with both boys and mentioned things that they had done during the year. I chatted with him again before saying goodbye. We were all wide-eyed with amazement. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

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Once I reminded our youngest of those stories, he dropped the subject for the time being. I knew he’d ask again and I also knew that none of us wanted to give up the magic of anticipation for those special moments we know as Christmas morning, when the world is suddenly transformed.

I also knew it was time he heard another story–that of Saint Nicholas, the Secret Giver of Gifts. It goes something like this . . .

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The nobleman looked to Heaven and cried, “Alas. Yesterday I was rich. Overnight I have lost my fortune. Now my three daughters cannot be married for I have no dowry to give. Nor can I support them.”

For during the Fourth Century, custom required the father of the bride to provide the groom with a dowry of money, land or any valuable possession. With no dowry to offer, the nobleman broke off his daughters’ engagements.

“Do not worry, Father. We will find a way,” comforted his oldest daughter.

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Then it happened. The next day, the eldest daughter discovered a bag of gold on the windowsill. She peered outside to see who had left the bag, but the street was vacant.

Looking toward Heaven, her father gave thanks. The gold served as her dowry and the eldest daughter married.

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A day later, another bag of gold mysteriously appeared on the sill. The second daughter married.

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Several days later, the father stepped around the corner of his house and spied a neighbor standing by an open window. In shocked silence, he watched the other man toss a familiar bag into the house. It landed in a stocking that the third daughter had hung by the chimney to dry.

The neighbor turned from the window and jumped when he saw the father.

“Thank you. I cannot thank you enough. I had no idea that the gold was from you,” said the father.

“Please, let this be our secret,” begged the neighbor. “Do not tell anyone where the bags came from.”

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The generous neighbor was said to be Bishop Nicholas, a young churchman of Myra in the Asia Minor, or what we call Turkey. Surrounded by wealth in his youth, Bishop Nicholas had matured into a faithful servant of God. He had dedicated his life to helping the poor and spreading Christianity. News of his good deeds circulated in spite of his attempt to be secretive. People named the bishop, “The Secret Giver of Gifts.”

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Following Bishop Nicholas’ death, he was made a saint because of his holiness, generosity and acts of kindness. Over the centuries, stockings were hung by chimneys on the Eve of December 6, the date he is known to have died, in hopes that they would be filled by “The Secret Giver of Gifts.”

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According to legend, Saint Nicholas traveled between Heaven and Earth in a wagon pulled by a white steed on the Eve of December 6. On their doorsteps, children placed gifts of hay and carrots for the steed. Saint Nicholas, in return, left candy and cookies for all the good boys and girls.

In Holland, Saint Nicholas, called Sinterklaas by the Dutch, was so popular for his actions, that the people adopted him as their patron saint or spiritual guardian.

Years later, in 1613, Dutch people sailed to the New World where they settled New Amsterdam, or today’s New York City. They brought the celebration of their beloved patron with them to America.

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To the ears of English colonists living in America, Sinterklaas must have sounded like Santa Claus. Over time, he delivered more than the traditional cookies and candy for stockings. All presents placed under a tree were believed to be brought by him.

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Santa Claus’ busy schedule required he travel the world in a short amount of time. Consequently, as recorded in Clement Moore’s poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer replaced the wagon and steed.

Since Saint Nicholas was known for his devout Christianity, the celebration of his death was eventually combined with the anniversary of Christ’s birth. December 24th or Christmas Eve, began to represent the Saint’s visit to Earth.

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Traditionally, gifts are exchanged to honor the Christ Child as the three Wise Men had honored Him in Bethlehem with frankincense, gold and myrrh.

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One thing, however, has not changed. The gifts delivered by Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, or whomever your tradition dictates, have always and will continue to symbolize the love people bear for one another.

Though they are now young adults, my continued hope for my sons is that they will realize the magic of Christmas comes from the heart and that we all have a wee bit of Santa in us. Yes, Patrick, Santa is real.

May you continue to embrace the mystery and discover wonder wherever you look. And may you find joy in being the Secret Giver of Gifts.

Laughing All The Way, Ho, Ho, Ho

It’s an eager group, the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Tuesday Trackers, and since we had to cancel our expedition two weeks ago, I decided to go forth with today’s plan despite the weather forecast predicting snow.

And so we gathered, most meeting at the library to carpool and another at the trailhead.

Not long into our tramp, we moved off trail and began looking for green-tinted tan milk duds. We’d barely finished describing them to some newbies when one among us spotted a pile. And then, we realized they were everywhere.

Also everywhere, for we were in an early succession forest, were the fleur de lis and teeny seeds of gray and paper birches.

Scanning the area, we recognized the diagonal cut on woody vegetation indicating the source of the hare scat. Once the frost kills succulent plants, a hare’s diet switches to saplings of aspen, birch, maple, willow and cedar. Oh, they’ll browse other species, but these are their favorites and the site we were in offered at least four of the five.

Of course, examining scat is one of a Tracker’s favorite things to do and today was no different. Bob got excited when he saw rainbow reflections in one little specimen. Mind you, we know better than to pick it up for scat can contain parasites, but . . . (don’t do this at home).

Our journey soon found us starring at a much larger scat. Truth be told, Pam had discovered it last week and I joined her the next day to admire it. It is indeed, MUCH larger than the hare scat, because it was created by Ursa Major, a black bear.

The funny thing (at least to us) was that the day Pam spotted this, Mary Holland posted a blog on her Naturally Curious site about black bears scent marking on telephone poles during the non-breeding season and reminding people to bring their bird feeders in at night because it hasn’t yet been cold enough for the bears to hibernate.

It’s often like that if you follow Mary’s blog. She’ll post something that you either just spotted or can expect to see that day or the next. (Thank you, Mary)

Oh how I wish I had a photo of Joan and Bob as they simultaneously spotted the scat after Pam and I had walked a wee bit to the side and paused to chat–ever so nonchalant were we. Their eyes expressed their excitement over such a find.

Again, we know not only not to handle scat, but also not to sniff it. But, we couldn’t resist getting close to see that this hearty specimen was chock full of acorn shells. And so we held our breath as we looked.

We told the newbies that the initiation ceremony included taking a closer look.

And so Joe did.

And Dawn followed suit.

It was almost as if David Brown had used this specimen to sketch the scat on his Trackard, but . . . his find was full of apples.

I, however, may do the same, for true confession is that I took a wee bit. Well, okay, I took a huge piece. To dry out and add to my collection. All in the name of education.

At last we pulled ourselves away and continued on in search of more mammal sign, which we found in the form of a small hole with a clean dooryard. Where there is one hole, there is usually another.

Our curiosity was satisfied when it was spotted not too far away and then we actually found a third on the other side of the path and suspected that a chipmunk had a castle below and knew how to avoid sky space above the trail. Sky space can be hazardous to a little brown thing if a bird of prey spots it and trails often create that opening that the LBTs fear.

Because we are who we are, and curious about every little thing, it wasn’t just mammal sign that captured our attention. There were sawfly cocoons to examine.

And then, the leaf that dangled from a hemlock. All we could think of was that a deciduous leaf had landed on the conifer and a leafroller insect took advantage of the opportunity to create its cocoon in situ. Can you see the threads that hold the leaf’s petiole or stalk to the hemlock needles?

There were other danglers as well, all befitting the current season for this was the trail that the GLLT’s Nature Explorers, a group of homeschool families, had used to decorate a Christmas tree last year for the Maine/New Hampshire Christmas Tree Quest.

This year’s tree is located along the Homestead Trail at the GLLT’s Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve, so be sure to get your quest on and go take a look.

And speaking of Christmas, snowflakes began falling as we made our way and we paused for a few moments to admire how they’d gathered on spider webs and danced in the slight breeze.

One of our other great finds and we found many, was the tubular shape of pine needles, which had been constructed by a pine tube moth caterpillar, Argyrotaenia pinatubana. The caterpillar had used a bunch of needles to form its hollow cocoon, binding them together with silk and munching on the ends of its winter home.

Later in the day, when I was alone, I discovered more tubes on pines and while I was looking I spied movement created by Tetragnatha viridis, the green long-jawed orb weaver. Do you see it? The green color helps it camouflage amongst pine needles, its usual habitat.

I bet you can see it now.

I only wish I’d been able to spy the spider when I was with this crew for we chatted about how after a winter rain droplets decorating webs make us realize how active spiders can be despite the temperature.

Today’s crew included Joan, Joe, Pam, Dawn, and Bob, and I suspect we all drove home with smiles in our hearts as we reflected upon the discoveries we’d made and fun we’d had during our time together.

We didn’t go over the river, but we certainly did go through the woods, laughing all the way, ho, ho, ho.